“May the Heavens strike me down if I lie. Again.”
– Dread Emperor Abominable, the Thrice-Struck
No one in living memory had seen a dwarven army take the field, not on the surface anyway. Even with all the dangers swirling around us I’d been looking forward to that part. Since becoming the Squire I’d scrapped either with or to the side of most the famous militaries: the Legions of Terror, the Spears of Stygia, Helikean exiles, both fae Courts. My own people in rebellion, Akua’s host of old breed Praesi. The Tenth Crusade too, though in all fairness I’d seen neither hide nor hair of soldiers that weren’t Proceran in the northern campaign. There was little left to account for. The other cities of the League were hardly known for their soldiery – apparently Bellerophon didn’t even have career officers, which just boggled the mind – and Ashur was primarily a naval power. The Dead King and the Chain of Hunger were the last two contenders, since the elves didn’t really fight wars. I’d be facing the former sooner or later, and the latter was allegedly more horde than host. With the drow having proved to be a pack of squabbling assholes bleeding themselves over the right to be Creation’s ricketiest demigods, the only force of note that remained was the Kingdom Under. Juniper, I thought, would have given her right hand to stand in my shoes right at this moment.
Indrani had led us to the same perch she’d used on earlier trip, and for all that it felt overly exposed it did give us a perfect view of what took place below. She hadn’t been overselling the size of the cavern, I quickly found out. Large as Laure might, if anything, be an understatement. There were a lot more people in Callow’s capital, of course. Maybe half the cavern was taken up by a lake, which to my mild interest revealed itself to be another food source for the locals. There were fish farms, walled in with stones, and what I was pretty sure was crab traps though the creatures writhing inside didn’t look like any crab I’d seen before. Most of the rest was ‘farmland’. Raised stones covered with thick lichen, mushrooms patches and what looked like some strange cousin of potatoes wherever the dirt was thick enough. Most of that was now occupied by the dwarven vanguard. The only drow holdout was the massive stalagmite in the back that Indrani had mentioned, though she hadn’t done the sight of it justice with her short description.
At the base, it was about as thick as fortress. Archer had labelled the path up as a spiral, but the angle was too sharp for the term to really fit. It zig-zagged across the sides of the stalagmite with precision too defined to be anything but manmade, the parts of the path that passed between the stone spire and the wall of the cavern effectively tunnels. There’d been tents there before, but they’d been flattened or taken away by the drow awaiting the assault. Which was coming soon, there were no two ways about it. I could tell as much just by the way the army had been positioned. At the bottom of the stalagmite a force of three thousand was standing patiently, and I’d almost let out a whistle at my first good look. Dwarves were known for their heavy infantry as well as their lethal contraptions, but these soldiers went a step further than I’d expected. It was like looking at walking barrels of steel. It was plate, in the sense that their armour wasn’t mail, but layered so thickly no a spot of dwarf could be seen underneath. Not even the famous beards: the helmets bore face-covering masks that ended in a sculpted steel beard where I assumed their actual beards lay protected. The weight of that should be too heavy for even the famously physically strong dwarves to be able to move in, so while there were no runes to be seen on the surface I assumed some had been inscribed beneath. To a dwarf, they bore long halberds with steel shafts that weighed enough even Hakram would have difficulty swinging one around.
They’re weren’t infantry so much as a company of walking battering rams.
The five thousand remaining dwarves were less heavily armoured, at least. Three divisions of a thousand each wore ornate but otherwise unremarkable plate, with square shields and war hammers. They all had crossbows on their back. I was classifying them as regulars in my mind, though in anyone else’s army they would be heavies. The last thousand was… interesting. The most lightly armoured of the lot, with only steel cuirasses over leather and plumed helmets that left the faces bare. They attended to the three dozen war machines the vanguard had set up in a crescent facing the stalagmite. If Juniper would have given a hand to see the battle, then Pickler would have eaten her firstborn to get a good peek at those. About half the machines looked to be some kind of fat steel ballistas raised on wheeled platforms. Not even the rope was, well, rope. It looked to be some kind of woven metal chord. There were wagons full of spherical projectiles next to them, two per ballista. The remaining half of the engines was hard to classify. The basic shape was like an onager’s, more or less small and portable catapults. What a scorpion was to a ballista, though my sappers would string me up for making so broad a comparison. The similarity ended at the shape, though. The steel base had been nailed to the floor with spikes almost as large as the engine itself, and instead of spheres to throw the already-loaded projectiles looked like elongated battering rams in a metal I did not recognize.
I wasn’t sure what those were meant for, but I doubted the drow would enjoy it.
The last of the dwarves were maybe two hundred, including what I was pretty sure was their command staff. Their armour was closest to that of the regulars, but lined with enough precious stones to steady Callow’s treasury for a good year. Unlike the grunts they were mounted. No horses, though. Best way I could put it was the unholy offspring of a lizard and an insect: the creatures were scaled and their reptilian heads had an impressive set of fangs, but their legs numbered six and were strangely segmented. They had three claws at the end of those, though they looked like they’d been blunted. Those officers were only around four dozen in number, and the remainder was unlike any other troops I’d seen so far. They wore heavy cuirasses and mail beneath them, but no helmet and both hair and beard were almost obsessively braided. Their weapons were not standardized, ranging from greatsword to some kind of chain with spiked weights at the end, but the eye-catching part was the trophies dangling down their bodies. Skulls and claws, stingers and broken weapons. Indrani caught me looking and leaned closer.
“Deed-seekers,” she whispered. “Met of few in Refuge. They’re after things they’re not supposed to get according to other dwarves, so they’re trying to earn enough glory that they become worthy of getting them. Some came up to hunt in the Waning Woods. Heard others go through the gate in Levant to have a tussle with the stuff in the woods there.”
“They any good?” I whispered back.
“Ran across one who broke his hammer on a manticore’s horns so he beat it to death with his bare hands,” she said. “And I’m not talking a juvenile, the thing was fully grown. They’re pretty hardcore. Polite for dwarves, though. Those I met knew surface tongues and they were willing to pay for guides.”
“So crazy of the dangerous kind,” I grunted. “Just what we needed.”
The conversation ended there and for good reason: the dwarves were on the move. There was no horn, no trumpet or warning. The ballistas just shot their first volley and the battle began. The projectiles, round orbs of steel, smacked into the upper reaches of the stalagmite. They’d been denied a better target: the drow were holing up out of sight. Rock shattered under steel and the whole spire shook. My brow rose at the sight. Those hit a lot harder than anything my goblins had ever cooked up.
“Flushing out the drow, you think?” Indrani said.
“If that stalagmite is solid rock, it’ll take them a while to make a dent even with strong engines,” I said.
Twenty heartbeats later the second volley hit, hitting the same places with impressive accuracy. The drow remained in hiding, which I honestly couldn’t fault them for. Between the crossbows and the siege if they made a stand anywhere in the open they’d get slaughtered. Their best shot was to make the dwarves come to them and hold a narrow passage hidden away from the engines. Alas for the locals, it was not to be. Three volleys later the entire stalagmite cracked. I could see the fracture going through the side, jagged and large enough to be easily visible even from where Indrani and I were laying on the floor. The entire top third of the spire had been cracked, at least on the side facing the dwarves. Had the thing been hollow? Maybe. Still, crack or not the weight of that upper third was keeping it in place. My eyes moved to the second kind of engines, anticipating there would be answer to that. My instincts had been correct. The almost-onagers were being seen to, long steel chains being attached to the back of the ram-like projectiles. The chains led to matching cranked wheels, already nailed into the ground.
“They’re going to pull the damned thing down,” I murmured. “Gods.”
How? Even if they put dwarves to work the crank, they shouldn’t be strong enough to apply sufficient pressure. The rams flew and sunk into the stone like a knife through butter, shivering after coming to a rest. There’d been sorcery at work, I thought. Blades unfolding inside to give greater grip? Impossible to tell. Anyhow, my first question got an answer moments later. Only a single dwarf attended to each crank, but the moment they laid hands on them the wheels lit up with runes. Not even thirty heartbeats later, the whole upper third of the spire came toppling down. They’d angled it to it fell into the water instead of on their own troops, though the great splash wet a few of them anyway. My eyes narrowed as I returned my attention to the stalagmite. It was hollow. The drow inside were swarming like a hive that’d just gotten kicked. The angle of steel ballistas was adjusted, projectiles from the second wagons loaded, and the volley arced up moments later. The spheres were stone this time, not steel. I did not wait long to learn why: at the summit of their arc, just above the hollow, they burst. Burning rain fell down, reaping a harvest of screams and death.
“Lava,” I quietly said. “That was fucking lava.”
“I mean, it’s not like they’re ever going to run out,” Indrani mused. “I can see the logic behind it.”
“Don’t you try to make it sound like it’s reasonable to shoot magic lava stones at people, Archer,” I hissed. “Who even does that?”
“The dwarves, evidently,” she said.
Sadly, throttling her might have given away our position so it would have to wait. Our time to move was fast approaching, though. The moment the dwarven infantry engaged we’d be trying our luck at sneaking through. Our exit tunnel had already been picked out, and we had a route across that wouldn’t take us too close to the fighting. The drow had been on the defensive so far, but since it’d become clear that the dwarves had no intention to climb up and the alternative was remaining inside a hole that’d slowly get filled with molten rock they were finally coming out. It was the first time I was having a look at a drow force that wasn’t already a pile of corpses, so they earned my full attention. This is not a professional army, was my first thought. Even Proceran levies had officers and an order of battle, but the drow? This was a tribe of warriors, with not a single soldiers among it. I could make out the hierarchy by the way they were equipped. No steel to be found on any of them, but there were tiers of a sort. The lowest of the low wore skins and leathers, armed with spears and blades. I winced when I noticed some of those blades were bone. That wouldn’t even scratch the dwarven armour.
Higher up the ladder, and fewer in number, there were drow in obsidian and stone. The equipment was not uniform, some of them having what I’d consider decent armour while others wore essentially the same as the first batch only with dangling bits of stronger material over it. Their weapons were mostly iron, of passable make. They’d at least manage to leave a mark on the enemy before being slaughtered. The last and rarest were those I assumed to be Mighty. Only a dozen of them, but they stood out starkly from the rest. Garbed in long flowing robes of Night with shifting plaques of iron in it, they moved swift as arrows through the charging crowd. Spears were the only armament they seemed to wield, with what I was pretty sure were sharpened ruby heads. Wasn’t sure how that would measure up to steel, though I did remember rubies were supposed to be one of the harder gemstones. The whole muster of the sigil was maybe two thousand. They’d get brutalized when they got to the bottom of the spire and engaged the dwarven heavy infantry, but the dwarves seemed disinclined to allow even that.
One of the mounted officers brought a horn to his lips, the first signal of the battle, and the deep call got the regulars moving. The square shields were set down to cover their bodies, crossbows taken out and the proverbial fish in the barrel got that same proverbial end. It was a relief to see that their firing rate was lesser than that of my legionaries. The range, though, was at least double. I would not want to fight those on an open field. The bolts scythed through the drow as they kept charging down the ramp, though only for the lesser warriors. The rest melded into the shadow-state when they saw the volleys approach. The ballistas had never ceased firing, slowly emptying the wagons of projectiles. Lava kept raining down into the hollow spire. The screams hadn’t ended either, and I was fairly sure the only warriors in the cavern were the ones charging to their doom. It would have been interesting to see how Mighty fared against dwarven infantry, but I didn’t intend to stick around until the final clean up. Their attention should be on the drow, for now, and that was our way out. I elbowed Archer and gestured towards our back. She nodded and we crawled out of sight before rising. The others were a short ways back, Akua keeping an eye on them.
They’d been waiting on us, and there was little need for conversation when time finally came to move. The plan was fairly simple. Indrani had the rope and hook to allow us to climb down to the floor of the cavern below, and the drow should have no issue managing it. The only thing up in the air was whether or not our friends would pick up on my use of Winter, and there was no real way to know that without trying it. Glamour shouldn’t draw as much attention as more direct uses, so it was as calculated a risk as we could take. I returned back to the edge, and with a deep breath allowed Winter to slither through my veins. I kept it simple, erasing our presence to the senses – I wasn’t sure whether the dwarven mounts could smell us at a distance, but I wasn’t about to take the risk. The working wasn’t too complicated, but it would take concentration to keep it going. The moment it settled, I glanced down at the battle. The dwarves had not stirred, which was promising. I gestured for the others to begin climbing down.
It was a tense half-hour before everyone made it to the cavern floor, shimmying down before Archer tugged back her rope. I’d not been certain whether or not I could keep the glamour going while having to focus on going down the rope, so an alternative solution had been required. The working should take care of the sound, and that was the important part. I glanced down and shrugged. Only thirty feet or so. I’d fallen down worse before. I leapt. Wings would make this much easier, admittedly, but they would require drawing deeper on my mantle. Besides, I mused even as the ground came ever closer, I’d been meaning to find out something. If I could turn myself into outright mist, finer manipulations should be possible as well. I landed on the stone in a crouch, having meddled with my legs, and found mixed results. Strengthening my knees had succeeded at making sure they wouldn’t break, which had been my main objective. Sadly, it’d also torn up whatever smoke and mirrors passed for my leg muscles these days. Half a win, I decided, adjusting my cloak where the fall had put it in disarray. The muscles were already reforming. Next time I’d have to see if I could make the entire legs solid without rupturing my insides above them.
The others clustered around me without a word. I’d made it clear that the closest to me they stood, the easiest it was to keep up the glamour. Our way through was still open, thank the Gods. Dwarven forces had been placed to prevent the drow in the spire from escaping, not occupy the whole cavern, which was too large for that regardless. It meant that if we kept close to the wall on the left side, we avoided coming close to the battle. In a strange and silent pilgrimage we tread through moss and mushrooms until we were hugging the wall and began our way through. My control was not fine enough to erase our footsteps, I’d warned them. It took longer to go through while avoiding leaving visible marks on the ground, but there was no other option. I’d never kept a working going this long before, and now I knew why I’d unconsciously avoided it: the longer I did the more I could feel Winter’s influence creeping into my mind, even if I was drawing no deeper on my power. Fortunately, Akua was there for me to shunt the influence into. It was almost tenser to stalk through unseen than take part in the fighting, I thought. Battle I knew well, but this? It wasn’t my wheelhouse. It took us most an hour to get across, and by then there was not a single living drow left.
I’d not had a good look at the last of the fighting, but the dwarven heavy infantry hadn’t been shaken by the doomed charge of the Mighty in the slightest. The regulars had gone up the slope afterwards, into the hollow part, and soon after the screams had gone silent. There’d never been a chance the drow would win this, and the outer rings were supposed to be the weakest part of the Everdark, but if this was a sign of what was to come… Well, I didn’t fancy the chances of the drow as a whole to turn back this invasion. I allowed the thought to fade as we neared our chosen tunnel. Archer hadn’t had a chance to take a look inside, but she’d noted it was the most lightly guarded. Ivah had gone through one close to it, on its way to the Gloom, and assured us that after another large abandoned cavern it led into a mess of small paths. Enough that it would be more or less impossible to keep an eye on all of them. It was a detour, taking us to the northeast when the quicker route would have been straight north, but a few additional days were well worth keeping out of sight. I was an old hand at disaster, by now, so my nerves grew more ragged as we neared the exit. If this was going to fail, it was going to fail now.
There were dwarves near the tunnel, but only a small company. Less than a hundred. It was my first time coming this close to their kind, but I did not slow to take a better look. Distractions were the enemy of this not-fight. I did note they were regulars, however. Those in layered armour might not be too common. More importantly, they were dawdling near the tunnel and not blocking the exit. We passed them by, step by step. I felt a dim spike of fear when a pair began talking loudly in some dwarven tongue, but they began brawling not long after and I let out a relieved breath. My shoulders loosened as we left them behind, allowing myself a strangled laugh. I wasn’t a fool, of course. I wouldn’t drop the glamour until we were much further in. But it looked like – no, I wasn’t going to finish that fucking thought. Never count the chickens, Catherine, even when they’re hatched. The Gods will shove them back in the fucking eggs just to spite you. Being absolutely still in the middle of the metaphorical woods, we pressed on. Archer took the lead, Ivah at her side, and they took us through a handful of short passages in quick succession. It was maybe another quarter hour until we reached the large cavern Ivah had mentioned.
Abandoned was something of a misnomer, as it was currently full of dwarves. Slightly more problematic was the way my glamour was ripped apart before we even entered. Runes shone on the tunell walls, panes of force fell down around us and dwarven yells sounded in the distance. I looked up angrily.
“Can I really not have a single chicken?” I complained. “You tight-fisted assholes.”